In this painting, artist Charles Ernest Butler (1864–1933) features a pair of ill-fated lovers from Germanic and Norse legend. Shown sleeping in her armor is a wise and magical woman, known as Brunhild in the 13th-century German Nibelungenlied and Brynhild by the 13th-century Icelandic Saga of the Volsungs. Kneeling above her is the mighty dragon-slaying hero, Siegfried (in Nibelungenlied) or Sigurd (in the saga). The painting depicts the first meeting of the two powerful legendary characters. It was quite an awkward scene, as Siegfried/Sigurd basically decided to disrobe Brunhild/Brynhild while she slumbered. The Saga of the Volsungs described the scene:
“Sigurd went into the rampart and saw a man lying there asleep, dressed in full armor. First he removed the helmet from the man’s head and saw that it was a woman. She was in a coat of mail so tight that it seemed to have grown into her flesh. He sliced through the armor [with his magical sword], down from the neck and out through the sleeves, and it cut like cloth. Sigurd said she had slept too long” (Saga of the Volsungs, chapter 21).
Brynhild would go on to explain that she had been sleeping because of a curse, and the cutting of her armor had somehow broken the spell. As thanks for awakening her, Brynhild bestowed on Sigurd her wisdom and knowledge of magic. The two greatly fancied each other, but their tragic tale fated them both to marry other people. Their ensuing misunderstandings and jealousies would bring about a mutual, gloomy end.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Saga of the Volsungs, by an anonymous 13th-century Icelander, translated by Jesse L. Byock. New York: Penguin Classics, 1990, 1999.